Dominic Rai (British South Asian Theatre Memories)

My name is Dominic Rai. I am a theatre director
and writer. And where were you born?
I was born in Punjab… in East… East Punjab and I… I came to Britain at the age of five
in 1967 and em… I grew up in Birmingham. And I have spent most of my life em… working
in the cultural sector, starting in British Asian theatre, as it was known then.
But you were telling me you saw em… the first Asian play that you saw was in Birmingham
by Tara Arts, isn’t it? That’s right. The first piece of British Asian
theatre that I saw was in… in 1984. It was a touring show by Tara Arts and the actors
who were involved em… will be very familiar em… one of them was Paul Bhattacharjee who
sadly died this year and em… then there was my friend, Harmage Singh Kalirai — he
was an actor in that show and em… doing all sort of mime and things — very experimental
theatre. And em… and taking over from an actor who was cast in the show was em… was
Jatinder Verma. He was performing in that show at that time em… because Andrew Johnson
had gone to Eastenders as the first Asian actor and he left the company much to the
er… chagrin of Jatinder and Tara Arts. And the other person was Shreela Ghosh who would
have gone in to Eastenders. And em… also involved were two er.. lovely female actors
— Sudha Bhuchar who went on to form Tamasha and er.. another actor called Mushee… Naushaba
Khan who became Shahim Khan. So it was a lovely cast of actors and em… it was an experimental
show.. and em.. and and one that I enjoyed and I thought, oh, you know something interesting
is happening. So, tell us about this experience, this something
interesting that was happening. What was interesting about it?
Well, I have to say that it’s all going to be relative. At the time in Birmingham, I
was studying Art, Fine Art in fact, and em… but I was… I had a lot of friends who were
studying to be actors and in Birmingham we’re quite close to er… Stratford-upon-Avon.
So, em, I would have popped over there with these friends at some points. And, em, I also,
er, personally took part in amateur theatre. Now, the amateur theatre we took part in would
have done shows like “Not Now Darling”, you know, farces, you know very much sort of commercial
Ray Cooney type of things. But amongst those there was also em… interesting shows from,
you know, new writing from Eastern Europe especially which was er… of interest to
me. And some of the people who contributed to amateur theatre… I belonged to a company
called the Birmingham Cooperative Theatre, the Co-op Theatre, and it was actually funded
by the Co-Op. So… so they had money for this… for their productions so that they
didn’t pay the people contributing. And em.. there was a chap there called em… Coleman
Kelly who taught theatre and he was the director, and I think he was quite a maverick. So, he
exposed us to, to er… interesting plays from America — as I said Eastern Europe,
and some new writing from Britain. So, though, so although it was an overall theatre experience
em, we knew about Alan Ayckbourn and we did some of his, his plays — I took part in an
Alan Ayckbourn play at that time called Confusions and em… so that was where I was coming from.
So, when you’re dealing with amateur theatre, it wasn’t going to be about Asian people necessarily,
okay. We knew about plays like Teahouse of the August Moon because Coleman Kelly was
really quite a maverick and he knew about new writing, you know, from all over. That
was a particular play that I liked. It’s by John Patrick and it’s about the American occupation
of the island of Okinawa. Em, and em, so, so whilst I say it, you know, in an easy kind
of way, amateur theatre, I did know something about theatre as a, even though I wasn’t really
a student of theatre, I was studying Fine Art. And, although these plays were interesting
they weren’t really speaking to me directly and Chilli In Your Eyes was a devised piece
of theatre and it was, em, racism in London — well, it was researched, very, em, as it
was all over the UK, it was very prominent, and it was, you know, National Front and all
that — and this show was researched in Newham, you know, Newham of the Olympics last year.
And, em, so it just goes to show that after all this time, 1984 to, em, two thousand and
twelve, a big change has happened, you know, we have two London theatres, em, which have
artistic directors or directors from British Asian, you know, the Bush, you know, and at
the, em… The Tricycle
And at The Tricycle. So, something has happened in that time you know. A lot has happened
in fact, so, so a programme like this is very relevant, you know, what the journey has been.
And Chilli in Your Eyes was researched with young people in Newham and it picked up on
racism and things like that and, and the hard… it was set in a Wimpy, and em, there weren’t
many safe places I guess for young people to be mixing at, at that time, and the Wimpy
was one of them perhaps. But it was researched and the Newham Seven and all these things
were happening at that time but nobody living in Britain would have recognised what they
were talking about. And it was a devised show, it was very relevant and I felt that it was
in tune with the times really, and later on when I, I joined Tara Arts the following year
as an actor I, I spoke to Harmage about it when I got to them and he said, oh yeah, you
know, there was even, even a male rape scene in that play but nobody took any notice, so
big was the issue of racism and the attacks, you know what I mean, that nobody took notice
of that, a male rape scene that was in the play. And, em, so, em, I think that, em, it
was genuinely an interesting piece of theatre. It was coming from the ground. It wasn’t a
classic text. It was speaking to, to me directly, yes, so that was the difference.
So, from that first experience, em, encounter with, em, British South Asian theatre you
then started to hone a career within this area, didn’t you? Would you say?
Well, I certainly, I worked, I had a contract for Tara Arts for a year and, er, I joined
the company, I think, in April ’85, with another actor. But at the time it was the first year,
I think, they had full time funding, although they had the base already, you know, in Garratt
Lane. Which was, has been, really wonderfully kept, em, and as you point out, being refurbished,
so, so that is a resource that Tara and Jatinder, and the company have kept, you know, until
this day which I’m very pleased and proud of — that it’s still there for people. And,
em, I had a contract with them for a year but I actually only stayed, I didn’t stay
the full year. I then went on to work with the Watford Palace, I was interested, more
interested in new writing and, em, so, so I went on to the Watford Palace to a theatre
in education company there and, em, which had a reputation for commissioning new writers
and working with several different kinds of writers. And even in my two years there we
did a trip to France we did all original plays, new plays, which I really liked.
And then you’ve formed, at what point did you form your own company?
Well, in 1989, em, Jatinder, er, I think Tara Arts got some to, to do some commissions.
And, I think we got a relatively small amount of money and there were several people, you
know, em, some dance commissions, and some theatre, and Tamasha did their first reading
of their play, Untouchable, at that time. And, em, Paul Bhattacharjee did a show as
well and I think it was, em, it was based on the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, em, the text
written by, er, after the book by Lawrence of Arabia, em, and, em, and, and, and I did
a, a commission as well of new writing which looked at British Asian history in terms of
Britain and India. I now realise it was more to do with Punjab and, and Britain. You know,
it wasn’t, although we, we said British Asian, but it was more to do with Punjab. And indeed,
em, it started off with a poem in Punjabi and English. So, em, I was trying to relate
to, basically, em, let me call it India for want of a better word but I think it was about,
em, the presence or Punjabi presence in Britain. Er, it looked at the Punjabi soldiers who
took part in First World War, Rezaul Kabir was, actually played the part of a Punjabi
soldier in that, who you’re going to interview. Em, and he played that part several times
over two, three years and, em, still he’ll be able to memorise that monologue I think,
he’ll be able to perform it for you if you ever ask him. He did it very well. Em, we
looked at the freedom movement, em, at the time that people have fought for the freedom
of India from London as students. And we looked at some of that. The contribution of Indian
soldiers was something I was very interested in, em, in World War One because I studied,
em, History three times in school but I never knew that there were any Indians involved
in it, in World War One. So, that was something that I was very interested in and later on
in my, in my career I, I did ask the pemission to adapt the only novel about Indian soldiers
in World War One which was by Mulk Raj Anand, which was called Across the Black Waters.
He gave us his blessing in ’98 and, em, and it was adapted by myself and Gerald Wells
and performed at Hackney Empire at the 80th anniversary of the end of the First World
War. Talking about new writing, you were saying
earlier on that there was a first British Asian play written in the 60s. Could you tell
us a little bit about that one? I had the, the privilege of, of er, knowing
about a very interesting writer from Southall called Darshan Singh Giani. And I, I met him
and he was interviewed for the, em, er project with Exeter University, the British Asian
theatre project, and I interviewed him. Em, and I invited him to be interviewed and he,
he had had a stroke at that time but as a young man who came from the Punjab he was
a teacher in India, he wrote a play, em, called Atu Devia, Atu’s Wedding. And it was about,
it was a comedy, and it was about, em, the, em, how people who’d come to Britain, they
have more money than the people they’d left back home, and how they, an older man could
marry a younger woman and that sort of thing. But I thought that this was really, at the
time, a very, sort of, like a, a great act, you know, like a great artistic endeavour
because I knew these men were working probably 12, 14 hour days in factories, foundries,
other work and they made time to come together and rehearse a play, an original play, new
writing in Punjabi, rehearse it, and I know that they went from Southall and they performed
it in Ealing Town Hall, and, which is probably the equivalent of going from somewhere like
Stratford, at that time, to the West End, you know, it was such a great endeavour and
a great act. And, em, although it falls into, into what we may call amateur theatre or community
theatre I think the fact that it was an original play puts it up with, you know, em, plays
maybe written by writers 25, 35 years later in that tradition.
So in your own artistic journey you’ve written as well, haven’t you?
I have. Em, the first commission, em, it was, it was called Asian Voices, the one for Tara
Arts when we picked up on, on the Punjabi presence in Britain or England, and Flanders
by the way, not just England, First World War as well. Em, but it was trying to pick
up, at the time, the Salman Rushdie affair was happening so, you know, we were also looking
at how images of, of Asian in the, in the media at that time. Salman Rushdie affair
was a very big thing in the news at that time. And, also, a couple of years prior to that
was the film Gandhi, so, you know, there was a discrepancy somewhere, you know, on the
one side we had this, you know, Salman Rushdie. On the other side, we had Gandhi, you know,
from, Mahatma Gandhi, you know. So, so there was a lot of presence but there wasn’t any,
like, any images of, of young people with a presence here like the one we saw with Chilli
in Your Eyes. There wasn’t enough of those images. And when you saw telly, you know,
you saw negative images and people, even though they were negative images, people would talk
and say oh, Mind Your Language is on, or, em, Not H, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum is on, and,
em, people were able to enjoy those things along with all the other diet of telly that
everyone watched. So, em, you know, there weren’t, no Goodness Gracious Me had happened
yet, you know, so, em, so when you saw images in a drama they were, you know, usually quite,
quite derogatively portrayed and, and they were quite, em, images were quite comical,
you know if they, if they were light-hearted at all.
And, do your, you, you wrote and then you also directed and you’ve acted. You’ve done
the whole lot, haven’t you? I would say that I, I actually stopped acting
quite early on but then I did want to create work, yes, and, and, and it started, sort
of, so I formed Man Mela Theatre Company and, em, inspired by Portraits, which I, I developed
with Alka Prabhakar. So, so both of us did that commission for Tara in 1989 and, which
was later, became Asian Voices. And, em, so, so in, em, in the Nineties, you know, I did
form Man Mela Theatre Company, yes. And how was that experience for you? Running
your own theatre company. Well, essentially I wanted to create new writing
and new work. And, em, and, and, and I think this came into fruition with an attachment
at the National Theatre with, em, Jack Bradley, who at the time was the New Writing Manager.
And, em, so I, I did an attachment with Jack and em, at, at the New Writing Department
at the National Theatre, and, and em, and, and Jack offered me a job to work there and
em, and indeed I, I read a lot of scripts, you know, and I, I used to em, take part in
their meetings which were usually monthly to read new scripts and whatever but I decided
that, that really I wanted to, to, to em, use my knowledge and skills to commission
new work. So I had a conversation with Jack and said, you know, really I can’t do this
here, you know, commission new work and things like that. You know, you have your own way
of working but I would like to do things much faster. And, so that became, so I, so when
I left em, er, Jack really which would have been about ’99, I wanted to do a commission
myself. I was already in touch really with writers that I wanted to commission. And I
commissioned three, and em, one was Ravi Singh Mangat, who was an East African Sikh, Ashok
Patel, who, who was originally from Leicester and, er, a Gujarati Hindu, and Yasmin Khan,
who is now called Yasmin Whittaker Khan, and she was from Bedford. And, em, so we had really,
er, er, a second generation Pakistani British woman being commissioned as well but all the
way to, to production. So the concept was quite simple to begin with, setting in a corner
shop and, em, there were three different families, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh family and em, the writers,
although we agreed on this concept of the corner shop, one was set in a Spar, a newsagent;
one was set in a, in a grocery shop and one was set in a, in a fabric shop, shop. So we
had really the, you know, the concept there but the, em, writers were free to tell their
own story and, em, so we had three different plays under that banner of the corner shop
and Ravi wrote a beautiful play called Wish about the father and son relationship, and,
and where the mother has died and they are, you know, in the shop together and all the
things that happened, quite a magical little play. And em, Ashok wrote a play about, em,
er the, the issue of gay relationships in a Hindu family and em, in fact it was a lesbian
relationship written by Ashok, a man. And em, and Yasmin wrote about honour killings
and, em she wrote a play, em, called Resham which means silk, set in the fabric shop.
And, em, we had a cast of five, rehearsed all three plays in three weeks which, which
is a, you know, a big task. And, and the same cast played all three families. The concept
was that we changed the, er, part of the dressing of the set from orange, er, then the door
became red for Hindu, and became green for the Muslim family. It was very subtly done
but the idea was to say, look, here’s a cast, you know, who could play all different families
and all different parts that were all Asian, all interesting stories to tell. And em, and
it was in the tradition I think of, of East is East, and it was about what it means to
be British Asian at that time. That was one of the things, this was never communicated
to the writers but that was one of the things I was trying to do. They were new writers,
it was about encouraging new voices and, em, and, and, and really it went to 21 cities
all over the UK. We rehearsed in Tower Hamlets, and although the last show was at the Brady
Centre, not the first, we opened in Scotland and we got our, em, er in Glasgow, Stirling
and Edinburgh, that’s where we got our first reviews. You know, national reviews. And then
it went all the way, you know, from Stirling to, em, Broadstairs you know, in Kent and
we got the same reaction everywhere, you know. It was really enthusiastically seen and, em,
and it was really coming at a time when em, you know, people had seen East is East, you
know, in all these remote places as well. And they had seen Goodness Gracious Me, so
they, they were probably more eager to, to see, hear new voices as well, you know, from
theatre. So would you say that in your experience of,
em, Asian theatre in this country that there’s a, this common thread that kind of links up
more or less about the Asian in, in British society now?
I think the difference really of, of someone like myself because I can’t really speak for
my colleagues is that, em, is that although we grew up in Britain, from my case from the
age of five, although we grew up in Britain, we were educated here, em, I grew up in Birmingham,
and so we grew up, you know really bilingually and, and for me it, or, or in some cases trilingually
even and, em, so, so really the, expressing yourself in theatre allowed us really, in
my case, to use Punjabi very freely, you know, because most of the actors I wanted to work
with, they were bilingual. And em, in The Corner Shop, there was a very young actress
who I had seen at Rose Bruford called Pia Khan and I, I was so impressed with Pia and,
and her acting skills, you know, she played in a Noel, Noel Coward play and, em, em, I
think it was Blithe Spirit or one of these plays and, and she played the part of, em,
an older woman and, so well that I was so impressed with her that I wanted her to be
in The Corner Shop and, and indeed er, she played the mother even though she was in her
early twenties, in Yasmin’s play, very convincingly. And em, and Yasmin had written some lines
in, in English, and I spoke to Pia and I said, do you agree with me that these should probably
say these in Punjabi because the mother wouldn’t say this, even on stage, it seems a bit artificial
you know, when it’s very emotional it should be in Punjabi. It doesn’t matter if, er, the
whole audience can’t understand it but they will be able to know what the mother is saying,
you know, from the feeling of it. And Pia was, you know, you had an actress in her early
twenties with a writer in her thirties, or about thirty, and, and Pia said, yeah, there’s
no way this mother would be saying this in English, you know. And em, she said, I said,
can you try saying it in Punjabi? I know we haven’t asked Yasmin yet, and Yasmin was quite,
you know, she wanted it in English cos, you know, she wanted everyone to understand it.
And em, so we had to, you know, Pia improvised on it, she did it in Punjabi, and she did
it so well that I thought that, really, this is expressing that there was now a younger
generation of actors, younger than the writer, younger than myself, completely bilingual,
who’d been to drama school and confident with their mother tongue, you know, I mean what
more could a director like me be asking for, you know. Em, it wasn’t that we needed to
have it in Punjabi, you know what I mean, cos Yasmin had written it in English. But
the fact was that it was about authenticity, and that authenticity was about a, and experience
that was very much created here. Had we grown up in Canada, where there is a sizeable Punjabi
population, since the early part of the 20th Century, or, or even in California it would
have been very difficult, or indeed in France. It was very much saying, we are here, we’re
in Britain and, you know, this is who we are. It was saying that.
So this kind of, is a result of the British transnational journeys that a lot of these
families have taken? Sure. Including my own, you know, who have
been, you know, like all em, South Asian families have been affected, or North Indian families,
North Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi families have been affected by partition. So, so, so
in my case also, and theatre is one place where we have transcended partition because
companies are mixed, you know, we don’t say, you know, we don’t say this is a, a Pakistani
company or this is an Indian company, this is a Bangladeshi company. We know that actors,
you know, are going to be mixed from all of these communities.
Some people in rural areas of England are saying that, em, em, that they’ve never been
to theatre and you, of course, had a piece that was set in a Corner Shop which, of course,
happens everywhere in the UK. Em, have you yourself, em, did you ever tour any of your
work to rural areas, em, you know seeking new audiences in that way?
Well I think that, em, em, The Corner Shop which was commissioned, em, in, in, in ’99
and we got it ready in 2000, em, we got it ready in partnership with, em, with the Hawth
in Crawley and, and the Arts Council, em. That did inspire, I think, rural touring.
In fact there was a Corner Shop created in the West Midlands a few years later, probably
just within the last four or five years, and they did rural touring by the way, and it
was still called The Corner Shop so I thought this was really good. And em, and there was
a play written around the same time er, I forget the name of the writer in Birmingham,
commissioned by, em, em, a beautiful play, em, er, at Birmingham Rep, which was also
called The Corner Shop but, so, I think we had started ours and commissioned it a year
or two before because we were dealing with three writers. But there was even a play called
The Corner Shop which came around the same time. So, or the year later, you know.
So were there any or are there any specific audiences that you aim to reach? Or do you
not think about that when you commission writing? Em, I think that, em, I would now be interested
in, in more of, I mean I’ve only grown up in, in big cities so my experience is really
urban. So I, I grew up in a sizeable city, you know, Birmingham and I lived there, er,
up to 18 years and then I spent most of my life in London. So, em, my experience has
been very urban and, and, and so, really, that was, that was my first audience. But
now I think I would be interested in more of a rural audience. I think that a play like,
like East is East should and can be produced in Wales. It doesn’t matter that there’s no
Asians involved, you know, they should play the characters. If they want to they should
do, em, you know, Welsh accents. If they want to they should set it in Salford, you know.
But I think because they are published and texts, you know, they are part of the canon
of, of, of British theatre and indeed I think that, em, I’m even interested that em, em,
you know, The Corner Shop should be published and performed. And it could be performed,
you know, by all Jewish actors — it doesn’t matter — because the experience, the immigrant
experience would be the same whether it was Caribbean, it should, you know, it could be
set there. And I think that’s something that I was wanting to do, I think that this is
something to do with, with publishing the work as well. I’m very much into that. I have
risked, I’m working with a Punjabi poet and have been for a, some time, called Mazhar
Tirmazi, and he writes in Punjabi. And, em, we’ve translated his play into English and,
em, now there’s, you know, Welsh translation by Menna Elfyn, who is a very well-known international
poet. And we’ve published it, you know, it’s available on Amazon. It’s called A Lifetime
on Tiptoes. And I like that idea that is should be, it can be translated into other languages
as well. We should say that you are now based in Wales.
I am, I, since 2007 I am, I’m based in Cardiff. Yes. Hence talking about all the Welsh em,
er connection. Em, so, em, you said you were studying Art when you were younger. So your
family was, they were quite supportive of your artistic turning.
Em, I think I have a, em, debt to pay to, to, to my parents who, who, who, who, em,
despite being the eldest, I wasn’t, I wasn’t, em, pressurised to, to be, to become, sort
of more academic which is one thing they would have liked. And to be getting, sort of, a
well-paid job which is also something they would have wished for me. So, em, so I think
that, em, the immigrant experience is definitely to, there was pressure to, a) to get married,
b) to have a regular job and, and b) to and c) even, to, to actually be more academic
and to do well in your studies. And I think all of those things, em, so I think I was,
em, despite them, em, I was aware of that pressure for all of those things. And I think
that my, my, my em, my father and my mother sort of allowed me to develop in the way that
I was going to develop. It wasn’t how they had intended, by the way, you know, they’d
much rather that I’d been more academic and got a regular job and, you know.
So you came from a rather stable family, would you say? Nothing sort of, em, er you know,
traumatic in any of your life experiences or anything like that?
No, I think they, on the background with all people from the sub-India continent, or certainly
people from North India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, I think they are affected by, by partition
and, and I think that’s a psychological effect. Em, maybe I, I’m speaking only about Punjabis.
I, I may, it may be different for different people, you know, but definitely I think that,
em, people Punjabis from India, East Punjab and West Punjab, you know, which is the most
largest population by the way, when you add those two things together, when you add the
Pakistani Punjabis, which is West Punjab, and the Eastern Punjabis, it becomes the largest
unit. Hence, sometimes people is one of, the second most-spoken language, hence they say
that sometimes, and that makes sense because that is a sizeable population that is here
when you add the two populations — the Indian Punjabis and the Pakistan Punjabis. Of course,
it will never come out in records because anybody who is, who is from Pakistan will
also, will always say that the Punjabis will also always say that our mother tongue is
Urdu. And Hindus generally will say that they are, mother tongue is Hindi. Even though,
even if they are Punjabis. So that is historically em, it is a sizeable group, you know, that
one. And hence, that em, you know Pia Khan, who was able to speak Punjabi in The Corner
Shop, you know, just like a Sikh actor would have done. Or Hindu.
And so this sense of dislocation has it em, er featured a lot in your work?
I think personally for me, em, the racism that was there, which was in the 60s, 70s,
and picked up in 1984 with Chilli In Your Eyes, that, you know, has, has, has continued
obviously, and it’s not gone away, you know, even though the BNP aren’t big news but it
probably hasn’t gone away. But I think what the Olympics showed was that things have moved
on a lot, you know. British Asian theatre has moved on a lot, you know. And I think
the kind of work that we will create now I hope will be more international work, for
example, the way that I’m working with Mazhar Tirmazi, you know. I want it to be published.
I want it to be published in Punjabi. I want it to be published in English translation
and, indeed, we’re publishing it in three languages. So when I do that production, hopefully
in a couple of years’ time it will probably be trilingual. It won’t matter that some of
the actors, we won’t be thinking that the peep, that the Welsh-speaking actors are the
ones who are going to be speaking only in Welsh, you know, it will be much more mixed
than that. And I think that’s the kind of theatre that I hope, was hoping for ten years
ago even, when I was, you know, thinking that was the way casting might have happened. But,
you know, obviously people, you know, we weren’t ready for doing that, you know. I think that
it does need writers of the calibre of Mazhar Tirmazi who’ve got things to say, you know,
which are much more than, you know, the language they’re writing in, you know. And we want
to share them with a wider audience. And so I’m thinking even that this needs to be available
on iTunes so we’re recording the play, em, I’m working with Mazhar to record it in Punjabi
and it is written in the folk style and then it will, the audio will be available in Welsh
and English as well. So… So, what do you think are the changes that
are happening in British Asian theatre? Well, for myself, it’s that journey basically.
I will be making things available in iTunes, you know, audio downloads as well. And em,
and I think it’s very important that, you know, we use technology that’s available to
us at our time and, so, it fits in very well with that project about partition because
originally it’s in Punjabi, I have an English translation. You can read it, we want you
to be able to hear it and download it but when we do the production, er, you know, if
I, if I direct it and produce it, it will be trilingual. But there’s nothing to stop
anyone else doing it only in Welsh or only in English or only in Punjabi, you know. I’d
welcome that. So would you say the themes are being reinvented
in different styles of, of writing and portrayal? Well I think that, em, theatre itself is,
is quite a luxury, you know. To be working in theatre is a privilege and a luxury. And
I think, em, that, that the number of em, em, actors and, and directors and writers
and designers and stage managers, let’s not forget them, em, is very limited, you know,
who are making their money out of it. And I think it’s, it’s a very special thing to
be working in theatre, er, or any of the performing arts professionally. But I think that the
technology is, is enabling us to create work in different ways and so, you know, you do
not have to be, you know, in London supported by some funder, you know, or funders to be
able to create work. You, you should, technology will enable us to do it in different ways.
And, and to put it out in the world as well. I, I hope that more interesting work will
be created, you know, using technologies as well, you know. So em, when I was em, em,
artist in residence at the, em, em, at the Brady Centre and at Eastside Arts between
2002 and 3, em, we did something called Stories Not For Texting. And, em, and that picked
up on Bangladeshi, sort of young people’s stories and, but using technology. And em,
and I think there was a way of communicating some of those stories which couldn’t be told
in any other way. But texting at that time was a very important way of doing it.
You’ve spoken very fondly of some of your past work. Does any one of it stand out for
you, that you feel is really important to your life or had a huge impact?
Well, I think the, the em, work that em, that, one of the pieces that I’m very, you know,
proud of which goes to, to, to em, er my grandfather’s generation who came to Britain in 1960 from
Malaysia, em, is that er, in my extended family we had, er, em, Urdu writers. These are Punjabis
who were writing in Urdu which was then the lingua franca and the, the language of learning
in North India. And, em, I, I came across really em, em, a translation of feminist Urdu
poetry called We Sinful Women. And em, I had been taught the Urdu script by my grandfather
before I learnt the ABC. And so, em, coming from that community where there were several
prominent Urdu writers, em, you know, I, I as an adult learnt to read and write Urdu
because it was, sort of, part of my heritage. And, em, so, Rukhsana Ahmed did this, em,
translation which was, em, prompted by Roomana Mehmud who I knew at, and worked with. Er,
so Roomana had suggested that this piece of work should be done. That contemporary, feminist
Urdu poetry, er, from Pakistan. And I had the privilege of, em, of, em, creating a show
called We Sinful Women. And, em, it’s performed bilingually, er, in Urdu and English. And
it toured nationally. Em, we did it in ’90, ’95-6. It toured nationally and I mean I,
that’s something I’m fond of, you know, because it was connecting something that had happened,
you know, here, there and then in Britain. The translator was here, Rukhsana Ahmed. It
was prompted by someone called Roomana Mehmud who I knew and it was connecting to my heritage
from my grandfather’s generation, indeed my father was an Urdu poet as well. So, but they
were well-known poets in that, in my extended family and community. So, so that was something
I was proud of because I wanted to connect. There was a disconnect really between East
and West Punjab and, so I think if there’s a overall theme in my work it is looking at
the effect of, of that really, because, em, Mazhar Tirmazi’s family, the writer I’m working
with now, comes from East Punjab, the Indian Punjab and I have friends and family who are
from the other side as well, who then had to move. So I think partition has played a
big part and has actually played out in, in the plays that we are seeing and writing subsequently.
And, so it’s a big theme in, in my own work and, and I say that the other thing is really
the, the, what we used to call the Asian, em, presence in Britain, then er, we started
to interchangeably call it the Indian, the Pakistani, the Bangladeshi presence but I
think that I am now quite happy to say that really, probably, it was the Punjabi presence.
And, and indeed I have come across, when there was no signs of the presence of the Indian
soldiers in World War One in Britain in ’98 when I did that, that, that play, it was in,
in, in em, Ypres, in Belgium, er, where there are the names of all the soldiers whose bodies
were not found, I saw my, my own family name and several other people’s family names written
there, you know, and, and I re, you know, so I knew that they had, you know, even though
I, I came from a soldiering family and studied history and the First World War three times,
I never knew there were Indians in World War One. So I’m looking for a, a revival of Across
the Black Waters, em, probably in two thousand and sixteen.
So, that’s great, that’s great, that’s a wonderful aim, em, to have. Em, so to finish off, em,
is there anything else you’d like to kind of tell us that we’ve missed out, I’m sure
we’ve missed out a lot but, you know, any one thing that stands out?
Well, I think that, em, people like, em, myself, you know em, we have been inspired and, and,
and contributed to British theatre. You know, I wouldn’t like to necessarily compartmentalise
it too much now, you know. I think there was a need in, in the 80s to compartmentalise
these things much more. Now I think it should be much more on, on, on a story you have to
tell and the relevance of that story and wanting to share it with an audience. It doesn’t matter
how, what the size of that audience is or who that audience is. I think it should be
more about that. Of course, there are, you know, tiers of work going on and, em, you
know, we saw a Shakespeare, Shakespeare productions, last year and a few years earlier in the West
End, and em, and I think that these works, and Black work, you know, in the West End.
I’m really pleased and proud, you know, of that as well, you know, currently playing
Fences, you know. Em, and I think that it’s very important that these works are happening
at every level, not just at the community level, but that we can see them, you know,
in the West End too. And that the RSC is able to do these works as well as the National,
you know, and that em, and that they happen because they are, you know, good plays worth
sharing with an audience. That’s something that I feel very, you know, strongly about.
That there’s an affinity of artists wanting to contribute to national culture here. You
know, well before there were any theatre companies, there were people coming together and performing.
And they performed for a reason, they performed to entertain themselves. Sometimes like, like
the Pit Duhar, they were, you know, because they were, they had a particular theme, because
Krishan Chander was a socialist and they had a particular message to give. The Indian Workers
Association, you know, socialist, and em, and then, then there were artists like Darshan
Singh Giani, who were in contact really with India, who er, and quite an extraordinary
level of artists from India. One of the foremost Punjabi poets, Amrita Pritam, came to stay
with him at his house. They would em, even like big film stars often came to visit and
stay with, you know, he was a teacher in India and, so, people like Darshan Singh Giani here,
in Wales, where I’m based now in Cardiff since 2007, there is, em, Harbhajan Preet, you know,
who is an East African Asian, and em, he’s done work here, and he wrote original plays
and they were performed. And I think that, em, long before there was Tara Arts there
were these artists, and they were not only writing work, they were performing work, rehearsing
work and, and they were taking it out to audiences. Em, there has been a disconnect with that
generation because they were writing in, in the case that I know that, like in Punjabi,
maybe Bengali or Gujarati, em, so they were writing in their mother languages. But I think
there’s a time now to, to, to really acknowledge those people and say that yes, because they
did that, that we are able to do this. And, and I think that, em, you know there has been
a, a em, you know that disconnect, maybe we can acknowledge their work really as well.
I’m quite interested to translate parts of em, em, you know Atu’s Wedding by Darshan
Singh Giani, and making it available and maybe even recording it, you know, as a play.
I think that’s wonderful, that’s really great. Yeah, okay.
So, so that’s it, yeah, so I think that er, you know, that nobody has invented British
Asian theatre but people have had stories to tell, they’ve been telling them and, and
I think that em, as, as we are em, the more integrated we become here like, for example,
I’m based in Wales, it was very important for me to, to have a very important play by
Mazhar Tirmazi, A Lifetime on Tiptoes, Umran Langhiyan Pabhan Bhaar, you know, a play that
he wrote. Em, also, not only translated into English but also into Welsh and when it is
produced that it’s going to be in three languages, you know, that’s very important.
Wonderful, thank you.

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